Was 2016 The Year of the Elephant?


Susie Watts, The Independent

Date Published

Last year provided a number of very promising developments for the elephant, China saved the best till last by announcing a timeline for its much-anticipated ban on domestic ivory trade in late December. The Chinese Government announced that the ban will come into effect at the end of 2017, although some factories and traders will be required to close shop as early as March 31, 2017.

It was the final extraordinary step in an extraordinary year that saw many unprecedented steps that give real hope that the struggle to save the elephant can, possibly, finally be won. 2016 started with the Hong Kong’s Chief Executive C.Y. Leung announcing that, after strenuous lobbying by local and international NGOs, there would be a phase-out of domestic ivory sales.

Hong Kong has served as a hub for illegal ivory for decades, with Japan – and more recently mainland China – as its principal end markets. Then, in April, the inaugural Giants Club summit took place in Kenya, bringing together African Heads of State, business leaders, scientists, NGOs and other influencers.

Crucial commitments to stop the poachers were secured from the four Giants Club nations – Kenya, Botswana, Gabon and Uganda – and millions of dollar pledged by donors.The following day, Kenya destroyed 105 tonnes of ivory. The burn received global coverage ranging from rapturous praise to gloomy predictions of a steep rise in black market prices.

In fact, market enquiries in mainland China a few weeks later found the naysayers wrong: the price of raw ivory had decreased by more than 50 percent. In September, a telephone survey of Hong Kong ivory traders indicated a price drop of 69% for raw elephant ivory. These price drops suggest that, far from increasing the price of ivory, the announcements made by C.Y. Leung, along with demand reduction work and the Kenya ivory burn, has achieved the opposite effect.

In the same month, at the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), elephants again featured prominently on the agenda. A controversial ivory trade “road map” for permitting ivory sales in the future, much-favoured by Zimbabwe and a handful of its allies in southern Africa, was finally shelved, and a critical resolution urging Parties to ban domestic ivory trade adopted.

A proposal submitted by Namibia and Zimbabwe, which would effectively have opened the door to unregulated international trade in ivory, was also defeated. Instead a mechanism was established for an independent assessment of progress made by source, transit and destination countries in their National Ivory Action Plans, with the threat of trade sanctions for non-compliant countries.

October saw President Magufuli of Tanzania, the country worst hit by the elephant poaching crisis, cracking down on the poachers and traders by telling his enforcement agencies to “arrest all those involved in this illicit trade. No-one should be spared, regardless of his position, age, religion or popularity … go after all of them … so that we protect our elephants from being slaughtered.” A number of major ivory dealers in Tanzania now face trial.

Nor was Kenya’s the only ivory bonfire of 2016. Malaysia, Singapore, Cameroun, Sri Lanka, Malawi, South Sudan and Vietnam all destroyed tonnes of ivory, while Hong Kong finished a phased destruction of its 28-tonne stockpile of seized ivory.

The end of domestic ivory sales in China will close a large loophole and Hong Kong’s five-year road map will phase out its ivory trade, starting with a ban on trophy imports and re-exports and, on31st December 2021, a ban on the possession of all ivory for commercial purposes.

If mainland China and Hong Kong set aside adequate resources for enforcement, a serious blow will be dealt to the global ivory trafficking syndicates. And if more countries implement the CITES Resolution on domestic trade bans, this will deprive the ivory traffickers of “legal” markets into which they can launder illegal ivory.

But, despite the successes of 2016, there is still work to be done. Legislation in some countries is still inadequate to deal with wildlife crime. Penalties are starting to increase, but there remain countries where a moderate fine is considered adequate. Others may have strong penalties but lack the political will or, in some cases, judicial expertise, to ensure that the kingpins are jailed. All too often, arresting or shooting poachers is seen as the primary method of preventing poaching but, as long as the middlemen, exporters and importers are still walking free, the poaching continues.

Similarly, some countries regard ivory seizures as the final goal of enforcement, making little effort to track down exporters and importers. Some are hampered by a lack of international co-operation, some lack the resources or the will to follow up seizures and some issue press releases just hours after a seizure, virtually guaranteeing that the trail goes cold. If nothing else happens in 2017, enhancing – and then enforcing – appropriate legislation for wildlife crime will go a long way towards protecting elephants and other imperilled species.

Another big question for 2017 is whether the EU, a major re-exporter of antique and “pre-convention” ivory to east Asia, will finally ban all international trade in ivory.  Even if the ivory being exported by the EU is genuinely old (and we know that some is not), their claim that this does not impact living elephants misses the point. Putting large quantities of ivory – of any age – on the market simply encourages further demand.

So, was 2016 the Year of the Elephant? Emphatically yes, if we consider the positive actions of national governments and the agreements made by international bodies as the basis for committed and courageous action.

But a Happy New Year for elephants, with a positive impact in terms of poaching, will now depend on how seriously these decisions and agreements are taken, how well they are implemented, how vigorously criminal gangs are tracked down and prosecuted, and how national and international bodies deal with transgressions.

Only once these steps are taken can we really start to believe that elephants’ future in the wild may be secure enough to ensure that they can be celebrated not only in 2017 but for decades to come.

Susie Watts has worked in wildlife conservation for 30 years and is a consultant on WildAid’s Africa programme